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GIS Projects at the Smithsonian Institution

Conservation Research Center | Amazon GIS | Center for Earth and Planetary Studies | Automatic Data Processing |
Smithsonian Environmental Research Center | Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute | Other Programs

Conservation and Research Center (CRC) of the National Zoo
The CRC is one of the focal points for the Smithsonian Institution’s initiatives in biodiversity conservation, professional training and environmental education. GIS and remote sensing tools are used for research and training at the CRC for the conservation of species, habitats, communities, and ecosystems. For most of this important training and research, the program ArcView, ArcGIS and their extensions, have been relied upon. Current and past projects, activities, and training courses that have benefitted from this software include:

  1. Remote Sensing and GIS studies to assess habitat availability for endangered and threatened species worldwide including:
  2. a. Asian elephants
    b. Mongolian gazelles in the eastern steppes of Mongolia and
    c. studies of optimum habitat suitability for reintroducing endangered species back into the wild
  3. Environmental analyses of Golden-cheeked and Kentucky warbler and other migratory bird distributions between the eastern US and in the wintering grounds of Honduras, Mexico and other parts of Central America while accounting for rapid forest change assessment using socio-economic and Landsat TM data
  4. Remote Sensing and GIS studies to assess the environmental impact of water withdrawal and sea-level rise on rare intertidal freshwater marshes along the Mattaponi River in Virginia.
  5. Remote Sensing and GIS studies to assess deforestation rates and the distribution of Eld’s deer in Myanmar (Burma) and to determine the underlying causes.
  6. Ecological studies on the impact of forest management on biodiversity on managed forest mosaics of the Appalachian mountains.
  7. Ecological studies on post-migration movements and habitat use by neotropical migratory birds such as Wood Thrush and Scarlet Tanager.
  8. Ecological studies on the impact of high white-tailed deer densities on forest ecosystems including vegetation regeneration, small mammal populations, and migratory bird populations.
  9. Analyses of livestock management and land cover change on the CRC grounds.
  10. Professional training for wildlife managers on GIS and Remote Sensing applications for wildlife and conservation management (biannual one-week courses) (also note that this started with CTSP)
  11. Forest Biodiversity Monitoring Workshop for high school teachers.
  12. Training of Mongolian researchers in using GIS to manage conservation data for the preservation of eastern Mongolian steppes and Mongolian gazelles.

National Zoo GIS


Amazon GIS Project of the National Zoological Park
The eight-country region of the Amazon contains the greatest concentration of biodiversity anywhere on earth. Conserving its resources, while simultaneously accommodating sustainable development, has become one of the great conservation challenges of the 21st Century. As human population growth in and around the Amazon continues to soar, agricultural, pastoral, and mining activities penetrate ever deeper into its interior placing much of this unique and irreplaceable ecosystem in jeopardy.

Survival of the Amazon as a viable biological entity will depend on wise development planning and careful stewardship of the region's natural resources. For effective conservation and sustainable development to become a reality, it will be necessary to assemble, analyze and synthesize as much relevant information as possible. Critical data such as the distribution and abundance of the region's biological and cultural diversity, protected areas, natural resources and their patterns of use, and development such as roads, oil and gas infrastructure, and forestry and mining activity must then be made readily available to development and conservation planners and policy makers. These data are fundamental for the fulfillment of the Amazonian Cooperation Treaty (ACT), signed in 1978 by eight member nations.

The combination of GIS and the internet enables the Amazon GIS Project to empower civil society as well as provide the fundamental basis for conservation decision-making. It also promotes effective strategies towards sustainable development in the region. Rather than being viewed as an NGO or multi-institutional effort, the Amazon GIS Project, woven into the fabric of the Smithsonian Institution, automatically brings an aura of neutrality and scientific credibility. Furthermore, Amazon GIS will work to ensure that it is recognized as a primary source and a continually updated site for the Amazon region.

Amazon GIS is also a leader in education, as the main lab is on display and located within the Amazonia Science Gallery and adjacent to the rainforest exhibit of the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. By showcasing our research team and the tools of GIS technology, Amazon GIS provides walk-in visitors and special guests of the National Zoo with on-site demonstrations and science interaction. In addition, Amazon GIS is also partnering with the Brazilian government to build an exhibit in Manaus, Brazil and we are in negotiation to replicate that exhibit in Peru. As highly active members in the global communities of GIS technology, environmental conservation, and museum exhibitry, Amazon GIS keeps the edge needed as a consistent front-runner in the building of tools for conservation.


Center for Earth and Planetary Studies (CEPS) of the National Air and Space Museum (NASM)
CEPS is a scientific research unit within the Collections and Research Department of NASM, and as such, its staff performs original research and outreach activities on topics covering planetary science, terrestrial geophysics, and the remote sensing of environmental change. Scientists at CEPS are working at more than 20 sites around the world. ArcView has been and will be used to combine data collected during field work with remotely sensed images, a primary goal for most of these projects. Past and current GIS/Remote Sensing projects include:

  1. An acid rain/deforestation study of the Czech Republic conducted together with Czech scientists.
  2. Geologic mapping and analysis of Venus, Mars, and other planetary bodies.
  3. A land cover/geologic study of the Mpala Ranch in central Kenya.
  4. Global Positioning System (GPS) surveys of the topography of lava flows around Mount Lassen in California, and an active volcano in the highlands of southern Peru which will lead to a better understanding of the geological hazards of the areas.
  5. Land cover change analysis in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.
  6. Use of ArcView to demonstrate geospatial data for visitors to NASM.

go toCEPS Home Page


Automatic Data Processing (ADP) and other departments of the National Museum of Natural History
All departments in NMNH have utilized and continue to use GIS during the past decade in investigations around the globe regarding biodiversity, present and paleobiological species distributions, archeological site analyses, paleo-landscape studies. Past and present use of GIS for mapping and geographic analyses include:

  1. Interdisciplinary ecological/biodiversity studies of the neotropics of the Americas, focusing on Amazonia.
  2. A study of the environmental parameters affecting the distribution of lichens in the Washington, D.C., area.
  3. Analyses of paleoIndian archeological excavations in Equador.
  4. A study of Miocene sediment deposits in the Salt Range area of Pakistan.
  5. Three dimensional (3D) analyses of paleobiological/archeological excavations in southern Kenya.
  6. Land cover change analysis on the island of Palau.
  7. Mapping species distributions for the Smithsonian Book of North American Mammals.
  8. Mapping and analyses of Siberian culture patterns.
  9. Cartographic research and production for the Handbook of North American Indians.
  10. A 3-D habitat study of invertebrate distributions in the Great Basin.
  11. Mapping of amphibian (salamanders) collection locations in the Appalachians.
  12. Mapping of moth species collection sites in Costa Rica and the U.S.
  13. Biodiversity studies and analyses of Guyana.
  14. Mapping and analysis of ancient Nazca sites' orientations in Peru.
  15. Spatial analysis of genetic diversity of South American frogs.
  16. A biogeographic study of Parque Nacional Sierra Nevada in Venezuela.
  17. A paleobiological study of fossil plants in Wyoming.
  18. A 3-D paleobiological study of fossil invertebrates in west Texas and eastern New Mexico
  19. 3-D analysis of paleo-bird migration routes in Hawaii.
  20. Internet mapping and map publishing by the Evolution of Terrestrial Ecosystems (ETE) program.
  21. Animated mapping of volcanic and seismic occurrences over time.
  22. Training of resident scientists, research assistants, scientific visitors, interns and others in the use of ArcInfo and ArcView.
  23. And many other smaller projects.

go toNational Museum of Natural History


Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC)
GIS work at SERC involves environmental and ecological studies. Scientists at SERC were the first to make use of GIS at the Smithsonian under contract through the University of Maryland starting in the mid-1980s. Since the late 1992, this GIS work has been entirely handled at SERC. Past and ongoing GIS projects at SERC include:

  1. An ongoing study of the parameters controlling nutrient and sediment discharges from the watershed of the Chesapeake Bay.
  2. A forest gap analysis study of damage and revegetation resulting from Hurricane Hugo in southern Virginia.
  3. An investigation of shoreline structures and landcover/land use versus crab habitats around the Chesapeake.

go toSmithsonian Environmental Research Center


Center for Tropical Forest Science and other departments at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
Use of GIS for tropical biodiversity studies and other comparative tropical ecological analyses has been an ongoing and growing process since 1993. Past, current and planned GIS utilization includes:

  1. Analyses of botanical censuses of Barro Colorado Island.
  2. Planned comparative botanical analyses of another forest plot in Cameroon.
  3. 3-D analyses of bird and freshwater fish distributions (accounting for the biogeography of their genetic diversity) in Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia.
  4. And other smaller tropical biodiversity mapping and analysis projects.

go toCenter for Tropical Forest Science


Other Smithsonian Institution Museums and Programs
GIS use for projects in other SI bureaus includes small numbers of people in the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), National Museum of American History (NMAH), the Sackler Gallery, and the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

Planned GIS projects include facilities and grounds management of the entire Smithsonian complex; around the museum and warehouse complex in the Washington, D.C., area, a spatial/forensic analysis of crime and an insect and rodent pest potential distribution analysis; a groundwater contamination site study in New Jersey; a paleobiological study of fossil plants in eastern Ohio; an atlas of holarctic mammal species distribution and biodiversity to be cooperatively produced with Chinese and Russian scientists; and an input of multi-layered information from CRIS to the National Biological Survey. The Smithsonian Institution Libraries (SIL) system is considering the implementation of placing multiple GIS workstations tied to a digital map library with access to other web-based map sources.

These projects are made possible by donations from the following companies: ESRI donated multiple copies of ArcView and five more PC packages of ARC/INFO (installed at ADP, CRC, SERC, STRI and in the Biological Diversity Program at NMNH), along with two pc-TIN modules from ESRI of Canada installed at ADP and STRI, one Windows NT version of ARC/INFO at ADP, and two UNIX workstation versions of ARC/INFO installed at CEPS and CRC. ERDAS, Inc. and PCI donated workstation licenses of their satellite image processing programs to CRC and CEPS, and the Dragon/image processing system for PCs was donated to STRI. Intergraph donated two workstations, with optical disc storage devices and color scanners, along with their Modular GIS Environment (MGE) and GeoMedia software families for the workstation and several PCs (that reside in ADP and Anthropology). And GeoResearch donated two copies of the GeoLink product that automatically links Global Positioning Systems (GPS) devices to any GIS software, that in turn led to donations from Motorola and Trimble of their GPS devices. Other GIS-related programs that were purchased include: a workstation version of Arc/Info at SERC, two copies of MapInfo (an overlay mapping program) one at CEPS and one that is being jointly used by CRIS and Botany, several copies of IDRISI (a raster based GIS developed at Clark Univ.), Mundo-Cart (a world mapping program on compact disc), SURFER (a 3D mapping program), AutoCad, plus an array of public domain programs (such as GRASS) obtained at little or no cost. More recently, a universal academic site license was negotiated between ESRI and SI so that anyone who wants ArcInfo/ArcGIS or ArcView on their desktops, or ArcIMS on their servers, throughout the Institution may now have it. In addition, some in-house mapping programs were developed for special applications, and a geographic data base library on compact discs is being built through acquisitions from other federal agencies.

Lastly, some of our scientists have been connected with the national BioCIS (Biological Curriculum Innovation Study) project since the 1990s. At SI, BioCIS involvement concerned the creation of hypertext multimedia databases that document biological diversity using Toolbook and other graphic (including ArcView) and database programs in a Windows environment. This project interfaced textual descriptions, taxonomic keys, distribution maps, photographs, drawings, and audio recordings of a variety of species in our collections.

The Secretary, the Assistant Secretary for Science, the Director of the Natural History Museum, the Director of the Office of the Chief Information Officer, and other Smithsonian officials have expressed great interest in establishing a strong GIS program at the Smithsonian. Vast opportunities exist for linkages between the museums and other governmental, academic, nonprofit and private groups, with potential for technology and information transfer at all levels. GIS mapping and spatial analytical technology, operations, and applications all but require cooperative efforts that at a minimum entail sharing information and digital data sets, and subsequently coordinating their processing, combination, and analysis.

Written by Dan Cole, GIS Coordinator, Smithsonian Institution.